Here follows the last of my series of program notes for Georgia Sinfonia concerts, and, I think, the one of which I am proudest. This was for a program of three serenades:
What is a Serenade?
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers two definitions: “1) a complimentary vocal or instrumental performance, especially one given outdoors at night for a woman being courted, or a work so performed; 2) an instrumental composition in several movements, written for a small ensemble, and midway between the suite and the symphony in style.” The first definition refers to a function; the second to a form. The earliest written serenades (dating from the 1600s) were functional; however, by Mozart’s time, the term referred equally to the function and the form. The following quote from the Wiener Theater-Almanach of 1794 provides the following vivid description of how serenades were performed and used:
"On fine summer nights, you may come upon serenades in the streets at all hours. They are not, as in Italy, a mere matter of a singer and a guitar. Here serenades are not used for declarations of love, for which the Viennese have better opportunities. Such night music may be given to a trio or a quartet of wind instruments and works of some extent may be played."
These “works of some extent” were often written on commission from a noble patron for a festive occasion, and featured a light, entertaining compositional style, containing as many as ten movements, many of them minuets and marches. And the scoring ranged from the trios and quartets mentioned by our Viennese correspondent to full orchestras.
By the nineteenth century, the functional definition of the serenade had largely given way to the formal. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Elgar, Richard Strauss and others wrote works they called serenades - implying a pattern with one or more movements more organized and developed than those in a suite, but with musical content less weighty than in a symphony. In our own time, we have had serenades from composers as diverse as Stravinsky (for piano solo), Schoenberg (for 2 clarinets, string trio, guitar and mandolin), Vaughan Williams (for 16 vocal soloists and orchestra, on words of Shakespeare) and Britten (for tenor, horn and strings). Clearly, a serenade is whatever its composer makes it - but the common thread seems to be a certain calm associated with the evening, whence came its name, from the Latin "serenus" - serene.
On our program we present three Serenades, one for strings alone, one for winds alone, and one combining the two.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for strings in C major, Opus 48
Tchaikovsky composed his only Serenade in the autumn of 1880, at Kamenka, his sister Sasha’s estate in the Ukraine. An exceptionally hypersensitive man (even by the standards of most musicians!), Tchaikovsky had only three years previously suffered a complete nervous breakdown, as a result of a disastrous marriage to a woman he couldn’t love but who threatened suicide if he didn’t marry her. Emotionally ravaged, he sought relief in writing works of a lighter nature than his symphonies. During this period he produced his four orchestral suites, his “Capriccio Italien,” and possibly his most popular (and notorious) work, the “1812 Overture,” written at exactly the same time as the Serenade. Writing in October 1880 to his friend and patron, the widow Nadejda von Meck, Tchaikovsky described his latest compositions thus: “You can imagine that my Muse has been very generous when I tell you that I have written two works very rapidly: a Festival Overture for the Exhibition and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The Overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth of enthusiasm; therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse; I felt it and venture to hope that it is not without the qualities of a work of art.” And indeed it stands as perhaps Tchaikovsky’s finest work written between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.
The first movement (entitled “Piece in the form of a Sonatina” in reference to its omitting the development section of the usual exposition-development-recapitulation sequence of the sonata form) frames, within a slow, solemn opening and closing, a bubbling fast section which is an homage to Mozart, his favorite composer; again writing to Madame von Meck, he admitted that “it is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model.” The second movement is the popular “Waltz” that is often played as a separate piece out of context. The third movement is a rare example of an elegy in a major key; and the finale - which also features a slow introduction, based on a Russian folksong - brings back at its close the opening of the entire Serenade, only to accelerate the tempo and convert it back into the fast main theme of the finale!
MOZART: Serenade in C minor, K. 388
Mozart left about a dozen serenades, most of them orchestral; however, there are two for strings alone (including the most famous work in the genre, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”) and three for winds. He also left at least 20 works in the related form of the divertimento (a genre whose primary difference from the serenade seems to be its function, the one being indoor background music, the other being outdoor). Again, the divertimenti feature a variety of performing ensembles; some are orchestral, some for strings only; at least eight are for winds. But whereas Mozart’s wind divertimenti are light, pleasant, tuneful pieces which admirably fulfill their purpose as dinner music, the three wind serenades (K. 361 for 13 winds, and K. 375 and K. 388 for wind octet) are something else altogether - works of real substance whose expressive variety and instrumental range are without parallel in wind music. In particular, the last of them, K. 388, can be regarded as a masterpiece on the same level as any other of his mature chamber pieces. It is a commentary on its quality that Mozart himself arranged it five or six years later for string quintet (K. 406), the first of five masterpieces in that form. It has been suggested, by Donald Mitchell in “The Mozart Companion,” that Mozart’s reason for doing so was a desire to “stress his own evaluation of the work - even to leave it in a less ‘occasional’ form” (since serenades, by and large, were seen by musicians and the public as ephemeral music, of no more importance than the latest popular hit today).
All we know of the circumstances of its composition is contained in a letter Mozart wrote to his father on July 27, 1782, from Vienna: he “had to compose a Nacht Musique [night music] quickly, one for woodwinds alone...” Presumably it was written on commission; if so, one can only wonder at its intended recipients’ reaction to it, for it is surely the most serious, the darkest, most dramatic work ever to be penned in the genre of the serenade. Mozart seldom used minor keys in his “serious” compositions (only two out of 41 symphonies, two out of 27 piano concertos, and two out of 23 quartets, for example, boast minor keys), so to do so in a serenade is a startling innovation. Even the minuet is rather grim-sounding, an effect intensified by the use of such learned contrapuntal devices as the canon (round) - the opening tune in the oboes is repeated note-for-note by the bassoons; later, in the Trio for oboes and bassoons alone, the second oboe answers the first with the same tune upside-down, and the bassoons do likewise! The last movement is a theme with eight variations, a form employed frequently by Mozart to end large-scale works, especially those in a minor key - the Piano Concerto in C minor (K. 491) and the Quartet in D minor (K. 421) are other great examples. The seriousness of the Serenade is finally dispelled in the last variation, in C major.
BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op. 16
In 1857, the 24-year-old Johannes Brahms accepted his first official position as a musician, at the court of Detmold, 40 miles southwest of Hanover. For three years, for the last three months of each year he was Detmold Court Pianist, conductor of the local choral society, and piano teacher for the music-loving Princess Frederika. His salary for three months could support his modest lifestyle for a whole year; thus he had plenty of time for composing. Best of all, the court had a good orchestra which Brahms had many opportunities to conduct; therefore he gained invaluable practical knowledge working with, and writing for, an orchestra. The two Serenades for orchestra were the direct result of this experience. Written, respecitvely, in 1858 and 1859, they are Brahms’ first purely orchestral works - only his First Piano Concerto, finished in 1857, preceded them.
This was perhaps the happiest time in Brahms’ life, and the two Serenades reflect this. Both works exhibit a bucolic charm, an unbuttoned freshness which Brahms would never quite recapture in his orchestral music. He would not call them symphonies, despite their symphonic proportions, for this very reason - he felt that symphonic music ought to be sober and monumental. (Brahms was to be forty before he dared write his first symphony.) The First Serenade, in D major, is the more expansive of the two, in six movements, scored for full orchestra. The Second, in contrast, is more introverted, has greater depth and intimacy - though Brahms compensates in the second movement with one of his most vivacious scherzos. Perhaps the more restrained quality is caused by the dark scoring, in which violins are omitted from the orchestra. Neither are there trumpets or drums - only pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, plus violas, cellos and basses. The majority of the melodic material is given to the winds, and the effect is as if we are hearing a woodwind ensemble to which the lower strings have, almost unaccountably, been added.
The first performance of the Second Serenade was given in Brahms’ native Hamburg, with the composer conducting, on February 10, 1860 - one month before the first performance of the First Serenade (in Hanover, conducted by Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim). Two years later, the first performance of a Brahms orchestral work was given anywhere outside of the northern German cities Brahms was personally associated with, in, of all places, New York City! Carl Bergmann conducted the New York Philharmonic (America’s oldest professional orchestra, then all of 20 years old) in this same Second Serenade, on February 1, 1862 - in a country entering its second year of civil war.